The participants in the 2022 MLS Cup final are set, and for the first time since 2003, the top seed in each conference -- the Philadelphia Union in the East and LAFC in the West -- will square off.
It will take some doing to reach the drama of that 2003 final, won by the San Jose Earthquakes over the Chicago Fire by a score of 4-2 with some wild changes in momentum. But these two teams have the talent, toughness and cohesiveness to deliver something memorable, and Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles is the perfect venue for a final.
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Here's how the two teams got there.
Philadelphia Union 3, New York City FC 1: Philly finally overcome their biggest foe
Every championship team has its dragon, that side that they just can't seem to get past, or inflicts a deep hurt that stifles championship dreams.
For the Philadelphia Union, that is -- or it was -- New York City FC. Last year, in the Eastern Conference final between these same teams, COVID-19 protocols prevented 11 Union players from even being considered for the starting lineup. Philadelphia's collective hands couldn't hold a 1-0 lead, and NYCFC went on to claim that year's MLS Cup. This time around, Philly slayed the dragon, with the Union coming from behind to claim a 3-1 win over the Blues, scoring three times in 11 second-half minutes in front of a raucous home crowd.
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And it wasn't just the goal scorers -- Julian Carranza, Daniel Gazdag and Cory Burke -- wielding the vorpal swords. Andre Blake's save from Alex Callens' header in the 60th minute -- with NYCFC up 1-0 -- delivered a wound of its own. Had Callens' effort found the net, a 2-0 lead almost certainly would have been too tall a mountain to climb. Instead it breathed new life into the Union.
It helped that NYCFC's defense experienced a collective brain fade that was downright befuddling. The Blues fell asleep on Carranza's equalizer, which came immediately after their own substitution, allowing him to collect Jakob Glesnes' quickly taken free kick and fire past Johnson. Then NYCFC got caught ball-watching on Gazdag's eventual game-winner, with Carranza nodding down a cross for an easy finish.
Burke's capper came after his mazy run appeared to end with a clearing attempt that ricocheted right back to him, allowing him to fire home. Credit the Union for punishing mistakes, but it was a spell one normally doesn't associate with the reigning MLS Cup champions.
And so, the Union now find themselves in their first MLS Cup. It's not quite the Island of Misfit Toys, but it seems like every one of their players has an unconventional path that took them to the City of Brotherly Love. Carranza was acquired via Inter Miami's fire sale after the Herons were found to have violated MLS roster rules. Gazdag arrived from Hungarian side Budapest Honved and proceeded to score 22 goals this season. Jakob Glesnes was acquired from unfancied Norwegian side Stromsgodset IF.
Thanks to the team's academy, which produced Jack McGlynn, the list goes on. Credit GM Ernst Tanner for spotting talent that would work in MLS, as well as manager Jim Curtin who molded it into a team that has been consistently been among the best in MLS over the past three seasons. The Union's approach reiterates that it's not enough to spend; an organization must spend wisely too.
Now there is just one obstacle -- and it's a real doozy -- to overcome.
LAFC 3, Austin FC 0: Arango answers his critics (again)
Remember when Chico Arango was on the trading block? It didn't matter how many goals he scored: he didn't help LAFC defend enough from the front, or so the thinking went, and therefore he was surplus to requirements. But as the old adage goes, sometimes the best deals are the ones you don't make, and so it proved for LAFC in its 3-0 Western Conference victory over Austin FC.
It was Arango who provided some reward for LAFC's first-half dominance, heading home Carlos Vela's corner in the 29th minute. Given the final margin of victory combined with the Black-and-Gold's control of the midfield throughout, it's tempting to think there was an air of inevitability about the win. But there have been plenty of times when a dominant team failed to cash in on its opportunities and then got punished -- ultimately, Arango's tally provided a bit of calm and confidence.
The goal also highlighted Arango's underrated ability in the air. At 5-foot-10, it would be stretch to say Arango is undersized, but he isn't a giant either. The tally was the fourth with his head this season, a mark bettered only by FC Cincinnati's Brandon Vazquez (6), Atlanta United's Juan Jose Purata (6) and the Portland Timbers' Bill Tuiloma (5). The fact that Arango has scored 32 goals in 53 games -- including two this postseason -- makes his contribution priceless.
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The same could be said about a much less flashy component of LAFC's lineup: holding midfielder Ilie Sanchez. The Spaniard was a free agent at the end of 2021, and the prevailing thought was that he no longer had the legs to be a mainstay in a team's lineup. But he's been just that for LAFC, was a Best XI selection this year, and was part of a defensive effort on Sunday that limited Austin's Sebastian Driussi to 33 touches, the fewest in a game all season in which the Argentine went 90 minutes. And he has long been the metronome for LAFC's attack.
Now it's up to LAFC to finish the deal, and fulfill the promise that they have shown since their inaugural season back in 2018. With a home match in front of their raucous fans, the odds that the Black-and-Gold get the job done are excellent indeed.